Dopamine is not the Devil

Dopamine is getting a lot of blame for addiction, but dopamine is necessary to life, movement, and motivation.

Photo by Lidya Nada on Unsplash

When animals were deprived of dopamine, they stopped eating, if dopamine was not injected into their brains, they died of starvation, they simply did not have enough motivation to eat. (Nora Volkow, video link later in article)

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which is a chemical released by neurons in order to communicate with other neurons.

Shutting down any neurotransmitter is a bad idea, yet dopamine is being attacked as the evil that leads us down the harrowing path to addiction.

Before I address the problem of addiction and the role dopamine plays, I first want to show you what happens if you don’t have enough dopamine.

According to Medical News Today the list of symptoms if your are low on dopamine is quite long. The following list is taken directly from their article.

  1. muscle cramps, spasms, or tremors

2. aches and pains

3. stiffness in the muscles

4. loss of balance

5. constipation

6. difficulty eating and swallowing

7. weight loss or weight gain

8. gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

9. frequent pneumonia

10. trouble sleeping or disturbed sleep

11. low energy

12. an inability to focus

13. moving or speaking more slowly than usual

14. feeling fatigued

15. feeling demotivated

16. feeling inexplicably sad or tearful

17. mood swings

18. feeling hopeless

19. having low self-esteem

20. feeling guilt-ridden

21. feeling anxious

22. suicidal thoughts or thoughts of self-harm

23. low sex drive

24. hallucinations

25. delusions

26. lack of insight or self-awareness

In addition to a long list of yucky symptoms there are some pretty harrowing diseases with dopamine deficiency such as Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, psychosis, and depression. (Yes, I said it, depression is a harrowing disease.)

While it is unclear if any of these diseases are caused by low dopamine, or if low dopamine is just one of the results of the disease, you can see how many symptoms may be relieved if scientists figure out how to increase dopamine levels.

So not enough dopamine is bad. Horribly, terribly bad, so why is it being pegged as the cause for addiction?

First, let’s unpack what we do and do not know about addiction.

We know that when a person is addicted to something, they get a pleasure rush every time they use. That pleasure rush is the dopamine being released into their system.

But I think it is important to get really, super, excruciatingly clear on one point. The pleasure causes the release of dopamine, not the addiction.

“The pleasure sensation that the brain gets when dopamine levels are elevated creates the motivation for us to proactively perform actions that are indispensable to our survival (like eating or procreation). Dopamine is what conditions us to do the things we need to do.” David Hirschman

Most people get that pleasure rush from a myriad of non-addictive things. Hugs, funny cat videos, being told they did a good job (praise), spending time with loved ones (tickle fights, swimming, whatever), exercise (I cringe writing that, because it is hailed as a way to get a natural high, but anyone with low dopamine is not going to want to move.) Completing a goal.

Studies show that drug users have lower levels of dopamine release, meaning they need a ‘big hit’ for their body to release dopamine. They may not feel much from just a hug, or reaching a goal. This could be from the interference the drugs create with the natural reward system of dopamine. But could it be the people who are addicted suffered from a faulty dopamine system before the addiction?

“The decreased dopamine function in addicted individuals also reduces their sensitivity to natural reinforcers.” National Institute on Drug Abuse

Apparently, in the study referenced above, they gave highly addictive drugs to both addicts and non-addicts. They found only a small percentage of non-addicts which were exposed to the drug wanted the drug again. Addiction does not seems to be created by exposure alone.

Is is possible some of the differences in the brains they studied between addicts and non-addicts were there before the person became addicted?

They do know that drug abuse down-regulates dopamine receptors.

What they don’t know is what the differences are in the brain of potential and non-potential addicts.

I suppose to figure that out, they would have to take a group of non-addicts, scan, measure, and correlate them. Then try really hard to get them all addicted, then scan measure, and correlate them again. Maybe that would reveal more of the mystery behind addiction. It wouldn’t be very nice, though.

The theory is that the drug floods the brain with too much dopamine, shutting down future production and receptors. But why it not seem to affect a majority of non-addicted subjects? Is it perhaps a build up over time? Except that does not explain the small amount of non-addicted subjects that DID want more of that stuff after just one hit.

Dopamine is complicated, and I have only addressed a small piece of all the things is does in the brain.

All I do know, is that we do need it, and that since addiction is not fun, maybe we should focus on getting the natural hits we need to be motivated and happy. I don’t know if it will help everyone, it could be that these hits will feel weak to people who have the mysterious ingredients for addiction. But maybe a lot of weak hits would help up regulate their dopamine system? Who knows, but the only danger to trying is that you will have to seek out and prioritize pleasurable experiences.

Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse has some great insights into the difference between an addiction driven dopamine release, and a natural, healthy dopamine release.

When you are hungry and you eat, the act of eating releases dopamine. It feels good, and the food makes you happy. As you continue your meal, the amount of dopamine released declines until you are full, no more dopamine is released, and you therefore stop eating.

When an addictive drug is used, there is no decline in the amount of dopamine released. No satiety is reached, you never feel full, so you constantly want more.

I think this is a helpful way to determine whether or not any behavior belongs in the addiction category or the natural category.

For example, the idea of social media addiction. Is there a point where you are fulfilled and done? Or do you just always want more and more likes?

Compare this to a hug, which is another form of social approval/connection. Do you want to hug for ever? I like a good hug, but I can almost feel the dopamine spike and then drop. Ever been stuck with a hugger whose dopamine took longer to drop than yours? (Just be patient, they will let go eventually.)

Or how about praise? We all get a nice feeling when someone congratulates us on a job well done or a goal achieved, but do we really want them to go on and on about it forever? If we keep hearing praise for the same thing, it gets old fast, we are done, satiated with praise, it doesn’t give us a hit anymore.

Adam Kepecs says that drugs which cause dopamine release basically hijack your dopamine system. I have a feeling it is not just drugs we should watch out for, but anything that does not bring us to that natural state of satiety.

I guess I just want everyone to know, dopamine is OK, not just OK, it is really amazing and great. Drugs (or other habits) that mess with our dopamine are not good. A lifestyle that takes advantage of our natural dopamine release is amazing.

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